An Essay by Chuck Reece
As we begin our sixth annual membership drive, we celebrate what happens in The Bitter Southerner Family.
In the family-of-birth department, I got lucky. My parents loved me, and they taught me how to act right — inside our immediate family, in our extended family, and in our community. If I was unlucky at all, it was in how long I had both parents to teach me.
Early readers of The Bitter Southerner might remember a story of mine called “The Lost Voice.” The essay was about how, as an adult, I could not recall the sound of Mama’s voice (she died when I was 11) — and how, 40 years later, Dad found an ancient reel-to-reel tape of her singing, giving me back her voice.
I don’t feel so unlucky anymore. Now that I have Mama’s voice back, I hear it all the time. These days, when I ponder something that seems a mystery to me, I hear her voice faintly tickling the edges of my brain.
In 2019, every day brings a fresh mess of of mysteries, and Mama’s voice brings no specific answers about those. But I’m clear on a bigger answer she would offer me, about how to be true in the middle of it all.
You already know how to act right. We taught you everything you need while we were all still together. Be good to everybody you know. Listen to them before you figure out what you want to say. When folks act wrong, learn from it, so you can act right. You already know what you stand for. Never be afraid to stand for it.
Lots of folks who read The Bitter Southerner were never blessed with even 11 years of a solid family. Some folks got none at all. But I think we all know, somewhere deep, how a family ought to act. How it should stand on a foundation of love. How it should be quick to listen and slower to judge. How it should right itself after it’s done wrong. How it should stand for common values of trust, decency, and equality.
In the beginning, when we first referred to our supporters as The Bitter Southerner Family, it reflected hope, not reality. We wanted to build more than a publication. We hoped to build a community of Southerners who stood unafraid to look critically at our region’s history, who no longer had any interest in keeping the word “old” firmly locked to the word “South.” Southerners who had the stomach for living and reckoning with the duality of the Southern thing — celebrating our meaningful traditions while admitting that certain customs we were taught no longer deserved even a speck of honor.
And we wanted it to feel like a family, more or less like my mama’s definition of one.
Then, over time, that actually happened. The Bitter Southerner Family includes Southerners who live all over the world. They support us every year (or every month) with a little money because of the stories we tell. We appreciate that. And every day, more members of our Family find their way to a secret spot — a closed, private group on Facebook — where they can all talk to each other.
If you decide to get in there, I expect you’ll see what we see: first, a bunch of Southerners who used to think of themselves as misfits. They did not resemble the Southerners they saw in the media’s stereotypes, and they didn’t know how to connect with the other folks who felt the same. You will also see Southerners who are evolving, folks who were raised inside traditions and customs that perpetuated our region’s racism and its “Old South” mythology — but who are in the process of getting “woke,” as it were.
A couple thousand folks are now part of the daily conversation inside The Bitter Southerner Family, and they call each other “cousin” — without irony — because their feelings for the group are genuine. And they say things like this:
My driving force is that if I want the stereotype of the dumb Southerner to die, then the world needs to hear a smart one talking.
Smart Southerners talking. Damnedest thing. Wonder why we never get that kind of thing on the Bravo network?
But in The Bitter Southerner Family, smart Southerners talk. Every day.
And if you haven’t guessed it thus far, The Bitter Southerner’s 2019 Membership Drive begins, like, right now.
A little over two years ago, an unexpected election result prompted me to write an essay — a letter to our Family, really — called “We Are Bitter, No. 2.” Like all Americans, The Bitter Southerner Crew saw the forces of intolerance, racism, and classism rising, and we resolved to fight. In that essay, we promised to “do more stories about issues that keep the South from reaching the potential that all of us — you, the reader, us, the staff, everybody — see in our region.”
In the two years since, we’ve tried to keep that promise. We dove into topics that challenged our Family’s notions of equality — such as LGBTQ kids being disowned by their parents, and immigrants from Latin America struggling to realize their own American dreams. Acclaimed North Carolina author David Joy’s story “Digging in the Trash” challenged the stereotypes that afflict Appalachia so dramatically that his story went viral and remains one of our most frequently read features.
Our efforts found new fuel in stories from people of color, whose contributions to The Bitter Southerner increase every year. Pulitzer Prize-winner Cynthia Tucker revisited the stories she’d never heard as a child — stories of lynchings — in her home county in Alabama. Her more recent piece told the stories of black people who had to travel by the real Green Book, not the Hollywood version of it. Tonyaa Weathersbee in Memphis brought us vivid portraits of voices from the Civil Rights Movement (and its music) in that pivotal Southern city. More recently, Brian Foster told us, through the life of musician Cedric Burnside, the truth of how African Americans built lives, livings, and cultures in rural Mississippi.
~ Some of the people whose stories we’ve told over the last year alone. ~
The goal of The Bitter Southerner has always been to pull off something no mainstream Southern magazine has: to create a publication that gives voice to the entirety of Southern culture. When we make progress toward that goal, we are at our best. Somehow, we’ve wound up in an odd spot in the marketplace — with a Family where almost every member actually wants to see and hear and watch the full reality of Southern culture. Our folks ain’t scared of difficult conversations because they know — deep in their hearts — that gumbo is way more than just a pot of stew.
The modern culture of the American South is a gumbo. It’s rich and flavorful. And despite those who would prefer it otherwise, its flavor forever changes. Every time new people adopt our region, they throw their flavors in the pot. It may not taste exactly like your folks remember it, but the gumbo damn sure gets more delicious every year. And if you can’t taste that … well … bless your heart. As my friend, Southern Foodways Alliance founder John T. Edge, told me on an episode of our podcast last year, “The South is not a product. It’s a process.”
The Bitter Southerner’s job is to show you the Southern process as it moves. That’s why, every year about this time, we ask people who read and appreciate the way we tell those stories to invest a little dough in our ability to keep them coming.
Earlier this month, we got an email the likes of which we’d never seen. Here is a condensed version:
I'm a 75-year-old Japanese American retired teacher, who was born in the Minidoka Internment Camp during World War II. I grew up in Seattle, Washington, trying to understand an America that would imprison my family because we looked like the "enemy." … I learned that it was whites, lots of whites, who seemed to drip hatred and contempt from every part of their being. … And the worst of the whites? Southerners, especially from the "deep South,“ who perpetrated acts of cruelty and humiliation upon all who didn't fit their narrow definition of what was American. So I grew up believing that the South was a dangerous place, filled with racists bent on keeping white folks in charge while relegating others, especially blacks, to the lowest class of humankind. Well, I heard your advertisement of your podcast, and I couldn't believe my ears. Stories that in Georgia there was a place where immigrants of all races and faiths were not only living, but welcomed and thriving! I listened intently and was thrilled at what I heard. … The South isn't going to hell in a handbasket — there are white people there who believe and act on principles of fairness, and further understanding between people of other colors and beliefs. … You have raised my spirit and given me a shot of hope.
Something is moving here. For years we’ve heard consistently from Southerners living around the world who tell us they use The Bitter Southerner to start conversations with non-Southern friends — especially friends who hold a vision of our home that’s similar to Mr. Higashi’s. We’ve also heard consistently from Southerners by choice, whose folks back home, wherever home is, question why they want to remain in the South. Those Southerners by choice use the BS to say, Here’s why.
But it wasn’t until about six months ago that we began to hear from people like Mr. Higashi, folks with no roots in or ties to our region who tell us they find hope when we put the spotlight on Southerners who ain’t like that.
The other day, I spent time looking at photographs by people who contributed to us in our earliest days. I was drawn to a shot by Amanda Greene. It’s a simple image, shot at twilight down a country road. The focal point is one of those ubiquitous traveling marquees, you know the ones — plastic letters, backlit, all set up to pull anywhere as long as you have a trailer hitch.
The sign says, “LOVE LIFTED ME.”
When I wrote about my mama’s lost voice, I recalled the last time I heard her alto in church. The last song I heard come from her lips was called “Higher Ground,” and I told that story.
But the next to last song I heard her sing was “Love Lifted Me.”
Love lifted me, love lifted me
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me
After two years of living through hatred tossed endlessly back and forth, it sure feels like it’s time we let love lift us.
Photo by Amanda Greene
We’ve built a machine here, and we hope it can do the same thing Pete Seeger’s banjo did: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender. That would be The Bitter Southerner at its best.
To do otherwise would not be fitting. It would fail to meet the values that we’ve seen spring into being inside The Bitter Southerner Family. Our folks know what they stand for and what, therefore, they must stand against. They abide no hatred of any Southerner who might feel like an “other.”
I live every day inside The Bitter Southerner Family. Sometimes, we’re talking about serious matters. Sometimes, we’re debating biscuit recipes. But I see how this Family acts, every day, and I see things that give me hope for the future of our region.
This family believes every Southerner was put on this earth equal.
This family looks for the good in everybody.
This family loves everybody (or at least tries to).
This family builds a better South.
This family blesses the hands that prepared the table — all of the hands.
This family thinks it’s high time folks look at the South and see something different from what they expect.
This family tells really good stories.
I think about our Family members, spread all over, and I see them as lights that twinkle beneath the shade of our region’s history. Someday, they’ll burn so bright, and so hot, the shade won’t have a chance.
We are The Bitter Southerner Family. We hope you’ll become a member, too, because it’s a mighty fine place to be.